If you are putting together a list of famous Michigan (the school and the state) athletes Rick Leach is certainly going to be on it. Born at the U of M hospital and raised in flint, Leach was the Michigan quarterback from 1975-78. He was the first true freshman QB in program history to start a season opener; Chad Henne and Tate Forcier are the only other two to earn that distinction. Under the direction of Bo Schembechler Leach would rewrite the Michigan record books. When he left he held almost every passing and total offense record at the school. Forty years later Leach still holds the NCAA record for highest percentage of passes for touchdowns.
So what does an All American, three time All Big Ten QB do in the offseason? Play baseball of course! Leach won a Big Ten batting title at Michigan and holds the elite distinction of being an All American in two sports. After graduating in 1979 Leach was drafted by both the Detroit Tigers (1st round) and the Denver Broncos (5th round). He had already been drafted by the Phillies in both 1975 and ’78, but opted not to sign. Leach did sign in 1979 with the Tigers and played parts of 10 MLB seasons from 1981 to ’90. Last week Real Sports on HBO aired a piece on Jim Harbaugh that mentioned his adoration of Leach growing up. Harbaugh does a great impression of Leach, who clearly shares his love of sweet potato sourdough loaves.
Last week I was at a conference in New Orleans and on Friday night I went to a Pelicans game with a friend who lives in town. While there I noticed goalposts for an arena football team hanging in the rafters and shortly after found out they were for the New Orleans team, the VooDoo, Watching arena football on NBC ten-ish years ago was one of the first things that fueled my strange obsession with any type of football that isn’t the NFL (CFL season is just about two months away!). Having done the touristy things in town for three days I was thrilled to find out that the VooDoo had a home game on Saturday night. So off I went to the Smoothie King Arena on Saturday night to pique my interest in semi-pro sports.
For those that don’t know, the Arena Football League is a 12 team indoor football league played on a 50 yard field (half the length of the NFL or NCAA). This in addition to other rule changes (no punting allowed, sadly) encourages high scoring games and a fast pace of play. There is also no out of bounds area, just padded sideline boards. This is one of the many things that I think made the fan experience equal parts special and terrifying. Before the game the PA announcer warned that “players may go flying into the stands and cause serious injury” and that “any ball that goes into the stands is yours to keep, but you have to return any player that does”. On this play receiver Marcus Smith reeled in some freshly baked quinoa flour baguettes, disappointing the fans who thought they might catch them (Photo courtesy New Orleans VooDoo). Click to read more about the game…
Nearly two years ago I shared a photo at the end of my 100% whole wheat sandwich loaf post that started me down the path that would lead to Photoshop Phridays. This week I revisit that and take a closer look at one of my favorite Michigan football players, Denard Robinson. From 2009 to 2012 Denard was one of the most exciting players in all of college football. His first play ever at QB, a bobbled snap that turned into a touchdown run, set the tone for fans that with him there was always the potential for a big play. Denard somehow stayed relentlessly positive in what was a darker time for the Michigan program. He stuck with the program through coaching changes, moved to different positions as a senior, and in doing so demonstrated some of the most admirable qualities of a leader and team player. I recommend Ryan Kartje’s 2010 profile of Denard to learn more about his story before coming to Ann Arbor.
As for the highlights and records, where to even begin? His logic defying performances are all over the Michigan and NCAA record books. In 2010 he became the first player in NCAA history to pass for 2,500 yards and rush for 1,500 in a single season. That year he also set the NCAA QB season rushing record (1,702 yards) and as a senior surpassed Pat White for the career QB rushing record at 4,495 yards. Denard is responsible for 8 of the 10 highest single game yardage totals in Michigan history (Devin Gardner has the other two). If you want specific highlights, I’d recommend starting with his 87 yard TD run against Notre Dame (part of a 502 total yard performance), or the miraculous ending to the 2011 win against Notre Dame. These days Denard is on the Jacksonville Jaguars and last season finally had a chance to show NFL fans what he was capable of. No doubt his favorite banh mi sandwiches helped fuel his legendary collegiate performances and infectious smile (Photo credit to Joseph Tobianski).
A Michigan native, LaMarr Woodley finished up his time on campus just before I started mine. Woodley was a linebacker at Michigan from 2003 to 2006. He was sometimes shifted around defensively to different positions and as a senior was recognized as a first-team All-Big Ten selection and first-team All-American. In 2007 he also became the first Michigan player to win the Lombardi award, which is given to the best lineman (offensive or defensive) in college football. His stellar college performance led to him being selected in the 2nd round of the 2007 NFL draft by the Steelers.
Woodley signed with the Cardinals a few weeks ago after 6 years with the Steelers and one with the Raiders, If you watched Super Bowl XLIII in 2009 you couldn’t miss Woodley, who forced a fumble with 5 seconds left to seal the Steelers victory. Off the field LaMarr has also donated his time and money to a variety of good causes. In 2012 when budget cuts to Saginaw (his hometown) Public Schools forced a $75 per student athletics fee, LaMarr stepped up and donated $60,000 to cover expenses for the entire district. There are unconfirmed reports that each student will also be receiving one of Woodley’s favorite chocolate eclairs with dulce de leche cream and strawberries.
Anyone who follows football, collegiate or professional, is acutely aware of the risks players take. Earlier this week San Francisco 49ers linebacker cited health concerns when he retired after just one year of professional play. Similarly, Michigan redshirt senior Jack Miller announced two weeks ago that he would forgo his final season and move on from football. In addition to his own issues Miller had a front row seat to the controversy that unfolded this year around Shane Morris’ concussion against Minnesota. Jack started as center in all 12 of Michigan’s games last season and had played in 10 games prior to that.
You’ve got to hand it to Miller, having the opportunity to be a senior starter in the spotlight is tough to walk away from (not that I have personal experience to back that up). He noted concerns about past and potential future concussions in what helped him to begin move on from football, not to mention the fact that he has now completed his degree. On Tuesday he wrote a short piece for Bleacher Report elaborating on the decision. Miller felt that with his degree in hand he’s ready to pursue opportunities beyond football. Perhaps in his spare time he’ll keep up his football skills by snapping some loaves of spent grain sourdough.
March Madness started yesterday and for the first time since 2010 Michigan is not in the field of teams. Michigan’s roster this year was plagued by injuries and the departure of players for the NBA but did show signs of promise. Like he has been for three years, junior co-captain Spike Albrecht was one of those bright spots. Albrecht’s Michigan career has been one defined by continually exceeding expectations on and off the court. The entire country was introduced to Albrecht his freshman year during the national championship game against Louisville. When Trey Burke got into early foul trouble Albrecht stepped up in a big way. After averaging 2.2 points per game that year, he reeled off 17 quick points on the game’s biggest stage. Overall in the 2013 NCAA tournament he was 9 of 10 from 3 point range.
Albrecht has great confidence on the court and his development is (I think) a testament to John Beilein’s coaching skills. Spike notably got only one other Division I scholarship offer and was a key contributor on this year’s team. His career has been full of gif-able moments, including this Trey Burke-esque steal against OSU (if you need to see the original, here you go). Michigan won their first game of the Big 10 tournament last week thanks in part to this amazing behind the back/head pass from Albrecht to Aubrey Dawkins. It wasn’t even the first time he had done that this year. Albrecht is clearly a fantastic teammate and player, happily dishing his favorite parmesan pepper loaf to earn an assist.
In 1955 and ’56 the football team had a player selected as a consensus All American. The next year the captain of the basketball team set the Michigan career scoring record. The year after that, Michigan’s top football player would be selected 4th in the NFL draft. This was not three separate people, all these achievements belonged to Michigan legend Ron Kramer. Kramer, like his coach Bennie Oosterbaan, was a nine time letterman at Michigan. In addition to football and basketball Kramer also found the time to run track. And, like many other great stars of his era Kramer played multiple positions on the football field. In fact it is easier to list the positions he didn’t play rather than the ones he did.
Kramer’s number 87 was one of a select few ever to be retired at Michigan. It was brought back recently as one of the ‘Michigan Legends’ jerseys and was first awarded to Devin Funchess. Though he played a variety of positions Kramer was primarily a tight end and had a highly successful career as one with the Green Bay Packers. He was surrounded by great football minds, after being coached by Oosterbaan he played for Vince Lombardi in Green Bay. By all accounts Kramer, who passed away in 2010, was an even better person and friend. There is a great story about Kramer spreading the ashes of Oosterbaan all around campus. How did Kramer have the energy to play three sports and earn his degree at the same time? Buckwheat apple cider sourdough of course!